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Three Critical Concerns for St. Louis Cardinals

National League Central Leaders Have Clear Weaknesses to Address Before October

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals are currently playing the most difficult -- and critical -- stretch of games on their 2013 schedule.

Attempting to hold off both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds is no small task, but the Redbirds must now do exactly that while playing both teams exclusively over the next 10 days. With baseball's most persistent offense, a resilient starting rotation and a bullpen rebuilt on the fly, the Cardinals should be well-positioned to survive such a daunting gauntlet.

But the cracks in the armor are starting to show, and general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny must find a way to patch them quickly if they want to avoid a win-or-go-home wild-card game in October.

Struggling Shortstops

Early in the season, Pete Kozma was somewhat of an asset for a team that lost All-Star shortstop Rafael Furcal in spring training. His penchant for clutch hitting and superbly stable defense made him a fixture in a lineup that boasts multiple All-Stars and .300 hitters. But his recent inability to hit the broad side of a barn with a bat has planted him on the bench in favor of seasoned utilityman Daniel Descalso. The only problem is that Descalso isn't hitting, either, and the Cardinals are running out of options.

Ryan Jackson was tearing up the Pacific Coast League in Triple-A Memphis for much of the year, but a .229 average in July and .213 average through August 28 have dropped his overall mark to .278. Still, his numbers against left-handed pitchers have remained impressive (.338 average with a .399 on-base percentage), and could offer somewhat of a boost for a Cardinals team hitting just .239 against lefties (No. 25 in MLB).

On the other hand, Greg Garcia -- former middle-infield mate of recently promoted Kolten Wong since their college days at Hawaii -- may offer a more playable bat right now. His .377 average in August and .441 mark over the last 10 games for Memphis have thrust his name into the big league shortstop conversation.

But, in both cases, the Cardinals have to consider the reality of promoting anyone to the major-league roster now, just days before the deadline for postseason-roster implications and smack dab in the middle of the most heated division race in baseball.

Kolten Wong, a much-anticipated second-base prospect added to the 25-man roster to provide a "boost" for a slumping team, knows what it's like to find your footing as a rookie in August. In 13 games and 29 at-bats since his call-up, Wong is hitting just .172 with a .200 OBP. Can the Cardinals really expect more from Garcia or Jackson when they can't even assure them regular playing time?

Pitching Problems

The Cardinals' starting rotation has experienced more turnover than any of the three NL Central contenders. In fact, only Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn remain from the projected rotation in spring training. Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, previous contestants in the "who wants to be a starting pitcher" competition to fill the spot left vacant by Chris Carpenter's injury, now both find themselves holding key spots in a decimated rotation. And Mike Matheny continues to juggle Triple-A starters to fill Jake Westbrook's turn while the once-dependable-innings-eater sits on the disabled list with back pain.

After Tyler Lyons' start against the Reds on August 26, the Cardinals must now cover possibly two more starts against division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. With only a one-ame lead in the division, either start could mean the difference between NL Central champs and "wild-card team No. 1."

But the rotation isn't the only area of concern.

While names like Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness and Trevor Rosenthal have provided stellar support out of the bullpen, All-Star closer Edward Mujica now seems to be battling fatigue and the effects of heavy use earlier in the season. Matheny is doing his best to steal rest for his ninth-inning man where he can, but a tighter-than-tight division race means he can't afford to sit his best closing option in save situations.

If Mujica goes down -- or just needs a break -- Rosenthal is the most likely successor, but such a role shift tends to have a cascade effect on the rest of the 'pen. Some combination of Siegrist and Michael Wacha would be the likely stand-ins for Rosenthal's eighth-inning duties while phenom Carlos Martinez could assume Wacha's long-man role.

(UPDATE: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting the Cardinals have acquired pitcher John Axford from the Milwaukee Brewers. Axford may not be what he once was, but he has the ability to provide much-needed relief for a heavily worked bullpen as well as close games when Mujica can't go.)

Yadier Molina's Knee and the Significance of the Backup Catcher

There's no doubt in anyone's mind who's the most valuable player on the Cardinals' roster. Yadier Molina's batting-title-worthy offensive numbers make him a valued asset, but his role handling pitchers behind the plate is invaluable, especially considering the Redbirds' pitching challenges and sheer number of young hurlers.

Unfortunately, for the Cardinals, his knees have made him the most at-risk player in the lineup as well.

After his stint on the disabled list, the Cardinals attempted to commit to a regularly scheduled maintenance plan that included planned off-days for Molina. That approach quickly went the way of the dodo when Yadi actually started playing games. Now, it seems Matheny and Mozeliak are back to the "let's see if we can talk Yadi into taking a day off" approach. The success of such a plan may rest primarily on Molina's confidence level in his backup catcher's ability to handle that day's starting pitcher.

With Tony Cruz on the DL with a stress fracture in his forearm, that makes Rob Johnson the backup catcher in question. Let's label Yadi's confidence level "concerned."

In 13 games (six started), Johnson's catcher ERA (CERA) -- a stat that attempts to measure a catcher's impact on pitching earned run average -- is a gut-wrenching 5.51. That's dead-last among all catchers in the National League (No. 48). Before his DL stint, Tony Cruz sported a 4.19 CERA. By comparison, Molina's CERA is 3.24, good enough for No. 3 in the NL behind A.J. Ellis (3.05) and Russell Martin (3.18), and more than two runs better than Johnson. The drop off from Molina to Cruz, however, is less than a run.

In short, the Cardinals need Tony Cruz back as soon as possible. They can't afford to drop any more games on Yadi's off-days, nor can they afford to push Molina to the point of breaking before playing a single game in October.

Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).

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